I hadn’t noticed it a month ago, the dramatic turn of habit in between her thumb and index finger. She seemed to have no control over what her hands were doing, they were in perpetual motion. Sitting beside my mother in the neurologist’s office in the early afternoon of a Friday, with a cold floor on a cold chair I watched and listened to her answer the older gentleman scholar, both gentle and scholarly, pose personal and specific questions toward her; some about her health, a lot regarding her identity: “How long ago did you atrophy to this great extent in your hands?” But at this point, she had checked out, gloved her responses to him. “Mrs. Lewis,” he politely scolded, clearly irritated she had now chosen to ignore him. His index finger twitched powerfully toward her third eye, he inhaled, and it was then I noticed the sun damage on his balding scalp, and his white hair in a comb over, just like my father’s. “How long?” he repeated. “Since I was in my twenties” I almost heard her say. Her hands resembled the bad witch: her face was green and her mouth released some spittle.
Once shown into the doctor’s examining room, my mother transitioned quickly from an impressed and engaged new patient, to a bored and weary one, repulsed by this doctor’s mythically proportioned second finger which inched perilously close to her profile. He bent over his paperwork as he spoke, only his eyelids gazed toward us as he squinted toward his notetaking. “A ha!” he said to no one and quickly picked up the phone on the desk and called someone clearly inferior to him. “Come to examination, why aren’t you here, come now!” click, hammer, rude. And then, very pleasantly, if not old school professionally he adjusted, “now, Mrs. Davis (breath) Lewis” (he kept mixing her name up with other old birds in wheelchairs who must’ve been waiting for him in other rooms). I interrupted, “Mrs. Lewis”. He nodded. “Remember these three statements, Mrs. Lewis:” and she stared purposely not in his direction. “The color red.” She never blinked. “Mrs. Lewis, please, can I hear you say… the color red?” My mother jerked alive, her nose lengthened and flared, “the color red.” She spat disgust, pulled her lower lip sideways into her mouth and chewed. “John Jones” the doctor continued. “John Jones” she rose up, raised him two. “America” he concluded and giggled. Which at that point I considered former President Trump’s well documented but non-existent victory when he passed a cognitive exam while in office and tweeted about it. Oy. “Remember these. I’m going to test you on this later on Mrs. Lewis” he hugely winked in my direction and never did remember to test her.
She was a deeply etched sketch of an ancestor on my skin. She was holding the rope at the front end of the parted Red Sea, desperately wanting to pull me with her to the other side. She was my tattoo.
Her slumping torso spread heavily in her wheelchair while the custom ordered thick and gelled cushion she sat on was a waste of two trips to a medical supply store and $150. She was slush and puddle on her seat, unsupported and flimsy.
She wore a snappy thick cotton violet beret. It covered her forehead and her diminished bounty of soiled grey hair, and only managed to cover a small third of her large ears. And it perfectly matched her face mask. The skin on her face was flattened in some places, drapey in other places, and in-between the colors of white and cement. She relentlessly toyed with her collection of bitternesses, her grudges and unfounded perceptions of the world around her – and powdered her judgements liberally on the doctor, on the nurse, on the receptionist and her driver, on the caregiver who waited in the lobby for her return and even, on me.
I loved watching her though, and the ways she chose to engage and withdraw; so clever. The doctor told her he would treat her more special than his other patients because she had sacrificed all those years being married to a doctor, he said. “You must have given up a lot during your marriage,” he sighed tipping his chin down toward her. He felt sorry for her. He knew what she had sacrificed. “Did he participate in family life, Mrs. Lewis?” he asked. She scoffed. “Of course, not.” And then, oddly, to me, “Do you remember your father at home?” Was he seeking redemption, this balding cardiac doctor with a bulging waistline and overgrown eyebrows? “Of course, not,” I respectfully echoed, glancing at my mother, watching my mother’s blood boil, watching my mother turn into smoke.
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